Saturday, August 18, 2012


As a graduate student, I wrote a short story about a boy who ran.  I made a runner my protagonist because I felt familiar with runners and their ways.  I'd run cross country and track in high school and college.  I'd woken early for predawn morning jogs and done mile repeats in the park, bending down with my hands on my knees to hear my heart pulse between each set.  I'd used "easy" and "sixteen miler" in the same sentence.    I'd qualified for the Boston Marathon.  I saw a strength in my runner self that I liked.   I knew the rush of lactic acid after the first mile of a 5K and I'd learned how to draft off other runners on the track, waiting like a predator for my competitors to weaken so that I could muster every bit of power in my body in the last lap of a race.  

When I described the running character in my story, an eighteen year old boy named Joseph, from a small town in Michigan's Upper Peninsula who woke every morning at five to run along Lake Michigan's north coast, listening to the sound of his feet and the rhythm of his breath, to Benjamin Percy, a professor and fiction writer I admire, Ben said, "Cool.  What's he running from?"  I had been sitting in the brown chair in his office, with my leg curled under me and my backpack on the floor.  

I leaned forward, "What is he running from?"  

"Yes, you have a character who runs, almost compulsively, he has to be running from something.  What is he trying to get away from?"

My nonfiction writer self stopped thinking about Joseph and started thinking about me.  What are you running from?  I asked myself.  I wondered what all my movement meant.

My brother Keith and I running in Michigan's Upper Pennisula, June 2005
In college, I could run a 5K (3.1 miles) in under eighteen minutes (5:44 per mile pace.)  I could run a 10K (6.2) miles in under thirty-eight minutes (6:05 pace.)  I ran over seventy miles a week, in addition to lifting weights, stretching, cross training.  I haunted track and field message boards and kept binders full of workouts and training tips.  I memorized NCAA qualifying times.  I'd seen teammates and former competitors become elite athletes.  I wanted the same.

When I ran hard, I wanted results, but I also ran to feel strong.  When you train that hard, the movement of running feels more effortless than walking.  On Sundays at the Indiana dunes with my teammates, I felt like a deer, moving fast and light-legged through the woods.  My first day running in Iowa, I saw a red fox, while training for my first marathon on the university's cross country course.  It dashed in front of me without consideration, looking up for only a moment.   We're kin.  I thought as I watched it disappear into the ferns, bushy tail bounding behind its sleek body.  

When I return to my hometown, my college, or the running shoe store I worked at while I competed in college, people ask me if I still run.  I run, several times a week.  I run, usually between three and six miles.  I occasionally will even go on a really long run, jogging ten to fifteen miles to remember the feel of distance.  My last year of graduate school I ran two half marathons.  But when someone asks me if I run, I shrug and answer, Not the way I used to.  Sometimes I talk about the hiking I do out west, or the rock climbing I've done in Michigan, sometimes I talk about the six to ten miles I walked everyday working as a naturalist at a kids camp.  But even with so much activity, I know that I lack the strength I used to have as a competitive runner.  My body is softer, my legs less lean, my capillaries less rich with oxygen.

In the past six years I've moved seven times.  Some of these moves have been packing a dorm room for the summer or Duffel-bagging my belonging to spend six months abroad.  Some of them have involved moving trucks and my housemates and I hoisting beds and bookshelves and couches through too-narrow doors in un-air-conditioned duplexes and apartments.  Some of them have been moves across the country, drives that took several days, in a car packed with coffee-cups, back-packs, and books.  I've learned what belongings make me feel settled.  I've learned how to make community.

Packing my college dorm room.   8/15/2006
In Ames, Iowa I attended graduate school with people from all over the country.  We created camaraderie over books and beer, coffee and conversation, pancakes and post-teaching decompression.  We all felt far from home so we learned to latch onto each other.  We cooked Indian food on Easter which we ate sitting cross-legged on the carpet of someone's apartment.  We celebrated each other's accomplishments with potlucks and champagne drank from Mason Jars.  We learned to be each other's faraway families.  

Ames was the place where I slowed all my running, where I allowed myself to stop pushing my strength long enough to slow down and stay, planting a garden and stocking a kitchen.  But Ames is a college town.  After graduation, I left.  And each time I return, more of my patchwork-graduate school family has graduated or moved, making the community we created impossible to enter in the same way.  
My friend who I texted about the title of my blog--"the ground underneath my feet" told me that Holden Village was a good place to ground myself but reminded me that I was entering a community that changed weekly, sometimes daily.  My students will stay the same but visitors and volunteers enter Holden every day, immersing themselves in the village for a couple days, a week, a couple months, before going back down the mountain to their more permanent lives elsewhere.  It's strange to think that next year I'll be the one staying-- the one being left, while people I meet keep moving, continuing on in their travels.

Last year while visiting Holden, I met a woman named Lindsey, a former librarian from Portland, who quit her job to spend a year visiting intentional communities all over the country.  When we met, she was several months into her time at Holden.  She'd already volunteered on two ships Irving Johnson and Exy Johnson through the Los Angeles Maritime Institute's TopSail Youth Program, visited a Zen Buddhist near the Tassajara hot springs, and worked on an organic homestead called "Little Farm."  She writes (beautifully) about her experiences as a twenty-first century pilgrim, searching for community in her blog:  

In one entry Lindsey writes the changing seasons at Holden, ending with this description:

"THERE'S a song called 'Rivers and Roads' that has been performed by a group of talented Holden musicians on several occasions. The first time I heard it, one of them introduced it as 'the most Holden song I've ever heard.'

A year from now we'll all be gone
All our friends will move away
And they're going to better places
But our friends will be gone away

It starts out quietly, voice and guitar, and the melody is calm, musing, detached.

Nothing is as it has been
And I miss your face like hell
And I guess it's just as well
But I miss your face like hell

But then the singer crescendos abruptly into a wail, and the piano crashes in, and finally you can feel the hurt behind the words:

Been talkin' 'bout the way things change
And my family lives in a different state
And if you don't know what to make of this
Then we will not relate

And then there's nothing left to sing but the chorus, vocals raw and haunting, harmonies building through repetition after repetition to a painful richness, the waltz-time rhythm lifting up and pounding down, moving you inexorably toward the song's end.

Rivers and roads
Rivers and roads
Rivers 'til I reach you

The song is by a band called The Head and the Heart, a group which has probably never heard of Holden Village. When I returned to the Land of Fast Internet and sought out their album recording of it, I was disappointed. It's nice, but... it's nice. I hear they're better live, and maybe even in the studio they really felt what they were singing about, but they don't make me feel it, not the way those people at Holden did, singing their hearts out in that firelit room."-Lindsey Hoffman

For me, becoming an adult has meant learning how to balance my running with the rest of my life, learning when to stay still and when to leave, learning how to both break my own heart and let it heal.  This spring, while trying to decide whether to keep my job in California or abandon it, knowing that there were places where I'd fit better, a friend asked me whether I was making decisions out of excitement or fear.  You can't keep yourself on a path because you're afraid to step off.  She said.  

Lately when I run, I'm less fast than I used to be.  I strap on old flats and put ipod ear buds in my ears.  I let my body sync into the rhythm of the path I'm on, breathe deeply, and try to remember to look up.


  1. I miss (and still love) our faraway family community. That's a lovely way of phrasing it (and this is/was a really helpful post for me to read right now).

  2. Knowing you and reading these words by you, I would say that while life is shaping you, your head is in the game - learning, learning, learning - and listening to what you are learning. And that's good.

  3. As you continue your journey and leave Michigan - once again - please know that you are loved, treasured, and will be missed. Wishing you safe travels, enlightening adventures, and God's richest blessings along the way.

  4. Rachael, what an honor to be quoted by you! Thanks for reading, and for sending other readers my way. I'll follow your blog as I'm able -- I admire your writing and look forward to hearing more about your year at Holden. I don't expect to return there in the next 12 months, but Holden's got my heart, and, it seems, yours; it's very likely we'll cross paths there again someday.